It's summer, and you're sick of talking about health and wellness. You want your six- (or eight-) pack abs, and you want them now. But in the long run, it's not just about being pretty. You want to think about training your core for functional use, strength, and muscle balance. Can you have both? You bet. Here's how.
Form Follows Function
Your "abs" are made up of several muscles, each with its own functional purpose. Your rectus abdominis—the part you think of as your six-pack—is the most visible abdominal muscle, but its main functional use is internal, to protect your organs. The transverse abdominis, which is the lower, deep layer of your abs, serves as a girdle and internal weight belt. It engages when you perform lifting actions in order to protect your spine. The internal and external obliques, located toward the side panels of your abdominals, help you stabilize and turn your torso. Add your lower back muscles, which support and balance your abdominals, and you have your core.
As a group, these muscles allow you to twist, turn, lift, leap, land, bend, straighten…pretty much everything begins with them. In fact, studies show that we fire our abdominals a split second before we do any movement, whether in the gym or in daily life. So, if your core is balanced and correctly aligned, you are actually firing your abs throughout every day, especially during heavy lifting and power movements such as sports. As you can imagine, a strong core will help to alleviate back pain and help prevent injury to your spine. But with functional, smart core programs, you will still have the muscular development to give you a beautiful set of abs.
That said, there are some structural limitations. First, you cannot spot-reduce fat, no matter what you may have read in the back of certain fitness magazines. And most men tend to carry the majority of their body fat around their middle, so the fat smothering your abs is often the last body fat to disappear. This won't change unless you modify your diet—your abs literally can't show through. Your genes may also be determining the visibility of your six-pack. Each person's rectus abdominis is shaped differently, and that basic shape is yours for keeps. Either way, though, you want to strip the fat and find out what you've got—and less fat and a flatter stomach will at least show the muscular design that your body genetically holds.
What Not to Do
First, let's assume you've lost the fat. Now, let's lose the crunches. When you do crunches, you're all rectus abdominis, all the time. When you train functionally, you work all the muscles of your abs evenly, developing consistently in all areas. That includes your lower back, which you need to develop as part of your core strength. But the combination of too many crunches and poor upper body posture makes the rectus abdominis often the most overworked and shortened area of abdominals for men. Add to this a weak lower back and you are literally working against yourself. More crunches make your posture deteriorate—and when you're rounded forward, your abs disappear.
Instead, think in terms of balance. For every forward flexion abdominal exercise you do (floor crunches, for instance), you need to counter-act that posture and movement with a lower back extension exercise (Supermans, for example). And, for every upper abs exercise you do, also do a lower abs exercise. That means, for every set of regular sit-ups, do a twisting oblique and a side-bend oblique exercise. If you are exercising your abs properly and with good form, each group will always be working during an exercise—but one group will be particularly targeted.
Functional training also means that you need to avoid those ever-popular abs machines. By completely supporting your head, these machines prevent you from developing consistently. The chain of muscle running down the front of your body, including your abdominals and your neck support, is often referred to as the "flexor chain". All of these muscles work together to support you when you bend forward—so all sections of this chain should be developed together. For this same reason, be sure not to support your head in your hands during abs work. Use your hands on your head only to add additional weight to lift, rather than to cradle your head and allow your neck to rest. Place your fingertips on your sideburns so that your hands are by your head without supporting it.
Most machines also do not allow for full flexion and extension—and they can inhibit proper form. By making it easier to do the exercise, the machines transfer the work to your arms or your upper body rather than your abs. Instead, use a stability ball, a BOSU ball, or the floor. With a stability ball or BOSU, you can fully engage your abs and use full flexion and extension during your movements.
Function: Your New Plan
Replace the crunches and the machines. You'll need two to three days a week of abs work in the gym. But you don't need a lot of time for abs—you just need the right set of exercises. Start by going back in time—to the full sit-ups you used to do in high school. Full sit-ups increase your core strength, back and front, and allow you to use every one of the muscle groups in your abs (note: only do these if you are free from back pain). When doing a full sit-up, go slow, and feel each muscle group in your abdomen. If you can, do these with your knees bent, or your legs extended. Try to avoid putting your feet under a holder. Full sit-ups will show you how strong your abs are—and if you can't do one, you know you need to do fewer crunches and much more full range work.
Below is a top five list of functional exercises with which you can replace your standard crunches and that target the complete complex of muscles in your abdomen:
- Full situps (with or without dumbbells)
- Stability ball center and oblique situps
- Floor leg raises
- Medicine ball situps on stability ball
- Cable Russian twists
About Diakadi Fitness Tips: Diakadi Fitness Tips is a series of weekly features and interviews with Billy Polson and Mike Clausen, founders of the award-winning Diakadi Body personal training gym and creators of RealJock's 12-week Workout Programs. Have burning questions about your fitness that you want them to answer? Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.